This post is in response to How to Keep Conversations From Becoming Fights by Jeremy E Sherman

William James defined philosophy as “A peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly.”  I think of Aristotle as setting the tone for it.  He listened respectfully to his teacher, Plato for 21 years, and then felt perfectly entitled to write arguments against his teacher. To listen well, free to disagree--that’s a key to stubborn attempts to think clearly.  

Another philosopher, David Hume said, “Truth springs from arguments amongst friends.”  I have friends like that, some more so than others. With my most argumentative friends, debates get fierce but the love between us never feels at risk. We share core assumptions and build out from them, often rancorously.  We fight fairly by standards we hold in common.  We have compatibility in how we negotiate the incompatibilities.

An important compatibility is tenacity such that we don’t tap out disrespectfully whenever our favored theories get threatened. We might say, “let’s give it a break,” or “I’m going to think about that a while,” but we don’t use cheater’s exit strategies.

Some people are quick to cry uncle, and foul in the same breath whenever they feel uncomfortable in debate. They let you know that they want a truce, but take one last jab, by attacking your character.  They don’t just say “I’m done,” they say “I’m done because you’re a bully.”

That wouldn’t be a credible attack if it weren’t that sometimes people are bullies. I just notice that some people seem to lean into this approach as a crutch, which is itself a form of bullying. They’re better at dishing it out than taking it in, asserting when they want but if you counter-assert, they’ll habitually attack not your theory but your character, saying something like “You just a bully trying to win.”  There’s no better way to win than to tell your opponent that he just wants to win. What can he say in response? “No I don’t” sounds like confirming evidence that he’s just trying to win. I’ll call such accusations “Tar Babies” in that the more you resist them the more they stick to you.

Or maybe these people who tap out quickly deserve more credit than that.  They feel  in over their heads, with neither appetite nor aptitude for a peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly.

Almost all of Plato’s dialogues end with someone tapping out in conversation with Socrates. Who has time for a peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly? Or stomach.  A lot of people by temperament or taste simply don’t like arguments even if all that heat can sometimes yield some truthful light.

I’m sometimes accused of being a bully, a know-it-all who insists he’s right.  Some friends say that they used to think I was a bully before they got to know me.  Then they decided that I argue my positions firmly but fairly.  When you find a flaw in my positions, I’m quick enough to concede the point.  They thought I just wanted to be right, but notice that I seem to actually want to get it right. They trust that I’m game for that peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly.

Sometimes I do just want to be right. Admitting that, and recognizing that it’s tedious dealing with someone who just wants to be right, I impose all sorts of restrictions barring my access to those cheap “no tag back” approaches to argumentation.  My best argumentative friends do too.  They don’t pull rank or attack character. They stick to content and own it when they’re wrong or just when they want a break, crying uncle without crying foul. 

My preferred conversation has range, plenty of room for argument and plenty of lubrication to keep the love between us solid.  I try not to blurt “No you’re wrong!” even when I feel it, but rather to say “I disagree” or “That doesn’t sound right to me,” something that reminds us both that neither of us is the final adjudicator on what’s right and wrong. 

With some friends the lubricant doesn’t just take the form of such tentativeness, but also a nice admixture of irreverence toward us both.  In an argument with one such friend recently I was able to blurt “That’s bullshit” without offending him, and a few minutes later say, “And here’s where I disagree with myself,” exposing a flaw in my own position. The argument was lively and productive and our hearts felt safe throughout.  Someone more tender listening in might have thought of calling the cops, we were that vigorous, but we never lost sight of the love, he and I.

Asperity means roughness and lately I’ve noticed that conversations with different friends call for different degrees of asperity. With tenderer friends I have to tone down the roughness, lubricating my assertions with lots of tentativeness or else they’ll think I’m out to prove myself infallible. 

With other, brasher friends, such tentativeness would under-power me. They’re brazen and glib with their blurts, “No you’re wrong,” and if I want to get my opinion heard I have to match their roughness. 

In conversation we don’t just match wits, but fits. If he’s not throwing them I better not either. If he is, I should too. And neither of us throwing hissy fits, just the fits of fiercer assertion, saying what we really think, still open to being talked down from our positions.  I like conversations in which we’re free to do that, but if necessary I tone it down.  I seek asperity parity—equality in how rough we talk. If they’re not talking rough I don’t either.  It’s like kids eventually learning by trial and error how rough they can afford to be with each other, without overpowering or being overpowered.

What’s at stake is keeping the argument from becoming what I call an Infallibility Contest a high-stakes, winner-takes-all, all-or-nothing contest over which one of us has total credibility and which one has none.  You’ve probably been there, at least when you were a bickering child. Lacking social skills, kids fall into infallibility contests all the time:

“You’re stupid. The green Mighty Morphin Power Ranger is called “Tommy Oliver.” You don’t know anything.

“No, you’re stupid.  You thought Disneyland was in Los Angeles.”

Or maybe you experienced an infallibility contest just last week, or during last year’s political season. They pop up often, even among adults.

Sometimes infallibility contests are perpetrated by some bully who really does think he’s infallible.  But they don’t don’t require a perpetrator. Infallibility contests happen to the best of us. It doesn’t take much to trigger one, just some unintentionally threatening gesture, a gut-driven blurt gone unchecked, a “no” or a look of exasperation, anything that feels rough enough to your conversational partner that he feels his reputation is at stake. Before you know it, a perfectly reasonable conversation between perfectly reasonable people has escalated into one, with both parties looking for flaws in each other’s arguments that prove their opponent doesn’t know anything.

Infallibility contests are a total waste of time, neither party listening since neither party can afford to, and both parties insisting they’re right.

So why not just be kind and tender and tentative all the time? Because at the other end of the continuum from infallibility contests is another total waste of time, conversations so bland they never generate much truth. That’s fine for corporate functions and family reunions aimed at pleasing great-grandma on her 90th.  But you wouldn’t want a steady diet that bland.

I teach college and sometimes it seems the object of that game is to make students both bland and infallible. They don’t want to criticize each other and they’re afraid of being wrong about anything.  I’ve wanted to buck that tendency and this week found a useful game.  I don’t get them into debates with each other but with themselves.  Performance wondering, I call it. They have to stand in front of the class and argue the pros and cons on some question for five minutes.  The object of that game is to speak forcefully but evenly on two answers to a question, and to end without a conclusion.  

After its over, the wonderer closes his or her eyes and I get a show of hands from the rest of the students on whether the wonderer showed bias toward one answer or the other.  The students seem to like it a lot.  And I like it because it demonstrates to them that they have something to say even when they don’t have the answers.  You don’t have to be a know-it-all to speak publicly.

Interesting to watch their strategies in this game. It’s a rhetoric class and some students go whole hog, making really strong cases in opposite directions.  They pull out all the rhetorical tricks I’ve been teaching, and make firm absolute assertions on one side and then flip 180 degrees to a firm absolute assertion on the other side. They let their asperity fly, but in two opposite directions. Internally they have asperity parity, but cantilevered way out on either side.

Other students stay more in the middle. Nothing too rhetorical, just gentle reasons on two sides of the question. Internally, they have asperity parity too.

I’m arguing here for both asperity range and asperity parity. As someone engaged in that peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly, I want to be able to come out swinging, in arguments amongst friends, so that’s part of my range.  As someone who wants friends, some of whom don’t want to argue, I need the range to also tone it down, speaking more softly and tentatively.  And, friend-by-friend, I try to tune my degree of asperity to theirs’, listening yet free to disagree, disagreeing only by what blunt roughness the friend can tolerate without triggering an infallibility contest. 

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